The commentators waiting for President Barack Obama to take the White House podium made much of this being the last press conference of his first term, implying that it could be almost a valedictory look back over the past four years.
Fortunately, considering the tasks before him, Obama was anything but reflective. He moved quickly and almost combatively to seize the high ground in the coming debate over raising the debt limit, currently $16.4 trillion, on how much Uncle Sam can borrow.
The debt ceiling, which the country is expected to reach by early March, is the first of three economic hurdles Obama faces this spring. It is also the most important.
If the ceiling is not raised, the U.S. government goes into technical default, meaning government employees from the Marines to meat inspectors do not get paid and foreign governments forgo the interest on U.S. debt they purchased in good faith. GOP conservatives in the House broke with the leadership last year to force a near-default, and Republicans are now pushing for spending cuts to accompany any debt-ceiling deal.
“The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so, too, are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved,” House Speaker John Boehner said Monday.
After the debt ceiling issue is resolved, Obama and Congress must deal with an automatic, across-the-board slash of more than $1 trillion in government spending. The dramatic meat-ax approach was an unsuccessful attempt to galvanize lawmakers into attacking the deficit problem. The deficit is still there and we’re still stuck with the automatic cuts.
Congress then must pass a spending bill to keep the government running after the temporary spending measure enacted last fall expires, again risking a government shutdown and another economic setback.
The debt ceiling is the most immediate and pressing issue and the one on which the president was most forceful. Tea party adherents demand federal spending cuts that match the debt-ceiling increase dollar for dollar.
There is pressure on Obama to bypass Congress and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, under the constitutional provision that says the validity of the public debt for paying our bills “shall not be questioned.” The president has said that he won’t do this, but he seemed to open the door at his press conference if Congress balks.
It could be a good year, Obama said, “if only politics don’t get in the way.” It’s a variation of an old Washington expression about unrealistic hopes: If we had some ham, we could have ham, and eggs if we had some eggs.